Review of The Marmite Prize for Painting, an artist-run, painting prize and touring exhibition that aims to showcase the best in contemporary painting from the UK and abroad. March & April 2013 in the Mackintosh Museum, The Glasgow School of Art
When you find yourself feeling weak and absolute defeat seems inescapable, there’s always one last option; the self defeating strategy. By asserting your own worthlessness you deny your adversaries the satisfaction of your defeat. Like the dog that’s rolled over to wee on itself, there’s no dignity left to destroy and, with nothing left to swing at, your adversaries get bored, leaving you to escape and regroup. In this sense, the self-defeating strategy is a temporary last resort, a nihilistic band-aid, a strategy to survive by, not to live by.
At first glance, self-defeat seems to be the strategy of contemporary painting as demonstrated by the 4th Marmite Prize for Painting and echoed by their dedication to the artist collective ‘BANK’. Why would a contemporary painting exhibition dedicate itself to the memory of BANK? Perhaps there’s some answer to be found in the way BANK described itself:
“talentless moronic, bullying, snide, obnoxious, self-righteous, grungy, pathetic, facile, ungracious, idiotic, childish, self-deprecating, critical, uncritical, naive, radical, cowardly, parasitical, big headed, socially inept, attention seeking, freeloading, innovative, outsiders, party poopers, losers, loudmouths, wannabes, stupid, beautiful, BANK”
From 1991 to 2003 BANK strove to live up to these ideals before finally succumbing to the pressures of infighting. In the words of John Beagles, whose talk on the exhibition described BANK as a reaction against the ‘deadening’ of contemporary art at the hands of ‘Goldsmith careerists’. Why a group of London based artists in 1991 would adopt such a ‘grungy’ persona seems obvious enough, but the decision of a painting exhibition in 2013 to dedicate itself to those grungy artists demands some investigation.
Painting, for centuries enjoying status above all other mediums, is today an icon of the past. Since the renaissance, the history of Western art was told as a relay of genius painters until the contemporary era when no painter could ever be called a genius again. Conceptualism took painting apart down to its smallest pieces leaving contemporary painters scratching their heads, trying to put the pieces back together. In truth, painting’s days of glory were numbered the moment that photography was invented. By the time that Conceptualism bumped painting off the main stage, many were glad to see it go. But now, after decades of institutional and theoretical dominance in art, painting is also an icon of a time when artists were still calling the shots.
Displayed ‘democratically’ from largest to smallest, this year’s Marmite Prize for Painting features 32 works from national and international artists have been selected from almost 850 entries to show ‘a full spectrum of approaches in painting.’ Within that spectrum exists the decorative beauty of works by Dan Roach, Julian Brown and Paul Newman but also the stark pessimism of works by Tom Palin, Simon Carter, and James Metsoja. Suitably named after the old English word for a cooking pot, the Marmite Prize is a stew of odd ingredients.
There’s a large amount of purely abstract work from Yifat Gat, Damien Flood, Playpaint, Amelia Barratt, Clare Price, Andrew Seto but only Marie d’Elbee’s Dog Watching Sunset is balanced with the kind of playfulness which that genre of painting routinely lacks.
Other paintings grab the eye with their likeness to the work of famous painters. Virginia Verran’s P L I N Y looks like a cluttered Miro and Matthew Krishanu’sTwo Boys look like they arrived in a box sent by Picasso. There’s a curious variety of suburban landscapes from Greg Rook’s bleak yet suggestive Untitled to Ben Deakin’s mysterious yet meek Hibernator.
There’s also a number of naive works from Alison Pilkington and Sabrina Shah that are so nice to look at that you could swear they hadn’t been painted by grown adults. Slightly less naive, and consequently less charming, is Charles William’s figurative effort although Brian Cheeswright’s is at least effective in its disturbance. Jana van Meerveld’s Bound for Lampedusa succeeds in conveying the tragic urgency of its subject matter, Blake Shirley is effectively fun and Alex Hanna painted a roll of bubble wrap.
When exhibitions like the 4th Marmite Prize for Painting attempt to display ‘a full spectrum of approaches in painting’ they inevitably fall prey to the burden of painting’s former glory. In presenting a survey of the entire medium they are obliged to tip their hat in so many different directions that the exhibition as a whole cannot possibly present a push towards any particular orientation. So the medium remains stuck and seemingly defeated. But within that democratic approach exists a principle worth defending.
At its worst, the self-defeating strategy is the impish masochism of the truly beaten but, at its best, self-defeat can be a brilliant ruse. By putting up a front of worthlessness, you can distract your detractors and hide your true worth until it’s grown strong and formidable. This appears to be the case for 4th Marmite Prize for Painting. Like BANK before them, the Marmite Prize’s hidden strength is its staunch autonomy. Curated and judged by artists, the prize reverses the trend of the branded art prizes that aim to remove artists from their communities by turning them into celebrities. Instead the Marmite Prize, with its absurd name, acts as an anti-brand that could never wield more influence than the communities it serves. Without a brand getting in the way we see only the artists and their underdog medium of painting. You could be forgiven for mistaking it for a winning strategy.
Image - The Marmite Prize for painting (installation view), 2 March – 6 April 2013. Photography Janet Wilson. Courtesy The Glasgow School of Art.
- This article was originally published by Central Station on March 21, 2013 -